Whose Streets?

Activist Streets

This is the sixth article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past.

Thornton Heath, an area in the north of the London Borough of Croydon, has always defied easy categorisation. Its separation from the borough’s town centre has, at times, seemed obvious – in the 1960s, one woman told a parliamentary boundary review that she was not ‘a Croydonian’ but ‘a Thornton Heath’. For Stormzy, headlining Glastonbury in 2019, there was little contradiction in projecting both place names behind the stage, along with other south London neighbourhoods like Norbury and South Norwood. The districts which Stormzy celebrated have been understood as shaped by a process of inexorable ‘multicultural drift’ – a term coined by Stuart Hall – in which ‘just having them [people from other cultures] around’ led to changing attitudes.

In this article and Storymap, I make the case that the press and the far right framed this demographic change as the intrusion of a racially fractious ‘inner city’ into the peaceful and settled London suburbs. Activists and residents pushed back against this notion of an invading threat by staking a claim to their neighbourhoods, communities and streets, in a way which placed diverse populations at the centre of these districts and their formation, identifying suburbia – and not the multicultural ‘inner city’, home to relatively advanced Black organisations – with racist discrimination and violence. Between the 1970s and 1990s campaigners faced frustration, pressure and violence, but their contingent and partial successes can be seen as laying the groundwork for the positively-inflected vision of south London that is typified by Stormzy’s Glastonbury performance.

Like other parts of Croydon, Thornton Heath was a site of so-called ‘second settlement’. The first Commonwealth migrants to arrive were predominantly Asian, with Amrit Devesar – born in India – elected councillor for Bensham Manor in 1971. They were followed later by African-Caribbean people, whose numbers rose from 1,669 in 1961 to 6,000 in 1971 and continued to grow thereafter, with many new homeowners relocating from sites of ‘first settlement’ like Brixton. Croydon had historically been a Conservative, white, and middle-class suburb, with deep connections to British fascism including A.K. Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists (based out of his home in south Croydon) and John Tyndall’s National Labour Party (based in Thornton Heath). Together, the two men played critical roles in the formation of the National Front (NF), based at 50 Pawsons Road in Thornton Heath from 1972.

Thornton Heath did witness efforts at supporting those moving to the area, including the work of the Parchmore Methodist Church. As the 1970s proceeded, however, some Black activists became frustrated with the limited, integrationist approach of white left-wing and community organisations. The Croydon Black Marxist Collective established Frontlines, a newspaper based at a former Black Panther headquarters in South Norwood. Meanwhile, demographic shifts and informal neighbourhood segregation led to tensions exacerbated by a fraught national context.

On 1st June 1981, a group of young Black people gathered at Melfort Park to plan an attack on the Wilton Arms, seen as a centre of NF activity. As the pub was stormed, one man – leader of a local football firm and reportedly an NF member – had his arm badly cut but the attack was repulsed. As the group moved on, an uninvolved white teenager – Terence May – was pulled from a motorcycle sidecar and killed. In the aftermath, fifteen young Black men and boys were arrested and tried with a range of offences from riotous assembly to murder.

Newspapers made comparisons to the uprisings in Brixton in April, in which some of the participants had apparently been involved. The Times called it ‘an unremarkable and apparently untroubled suburb’, noting that the area was ‘pleasant and the terraces well kept’. That the area’s ‘moral climate’ had been tested, then, was due to the intrusion of something from outside: the ‘overspill’ of the ‘inner city’.

This was an assessment which radical Black activists inverted, arguing that the apparently-peaceful ‘moral climate’ of Thornton Heath was a thin veneer covering prejudice and segregation – Race Today criticised middle-class Black parents who kept ‘a respectable suburban silence’ and ‘warned their children to stay away from Brixton and such areas lest they be contaminated by lawless elements.’ After a trial record-breaking for its length, as lawyers like Rudy Narayan placed the incident in the context of NF violence, ten defendants were found guilty of riot, five of affray, and one – Ronald Pilgrim – of manslaughter.

Harnessing the energies which had generated the attack on the Wilton Arms, local activists Femi Adelaja and Winford Jamieson organised another meeting at Melfort Park. A disused building in Croydon town centre – sought, unsuccessfully, by the Association of Jamaicans for several years – was squatted and turned into ‘Base Uhuru’, headquarters of the Croydon Black Peoples Action Committee and a Police Monitoring Unit, which eventually received funds from both the council and the GLC.

Coverage of the Police Monitoring Unit indicated the shift in Thornton Heath’s presentation. Whilst the Daily Star’s front page still called it a ‘leafy and relatively law-abiding mixed race suburb’, a page later Croydon was described as ‘one of the capital’s most racially-volatile’. Thornton Heath was increasingly seen as part of the inner city, where racial violence was unsurprising if not inevitable – a presentation which suited the right-wing newspapers but also radical Black activists for whom comparison to Brixton, with its left-wing Labour council and the Lambeth Law Centre, was a source of hope, not dismay.

By the 1990s, popular characterisations of Thornton Heath had shifted once again, as more radical activists confronted with difficulty a newer sense of the area as a multicultural, neutral space. On 31st July 1992, an Afghan refugee, Ruhullah Aramesh, was attacked and killed by a gang of white youths after intervening to stop them harassing his female relatives. At a demonstration organised by the Anti-Nazi League, Gee Bernard explained her son had been attacked a decade earlier close to the same spot. Whilst Bernard insisted that ‘the colleges, the schools, the council and all the bureaucracy of Britain is racist’, her status as a Labour councillor pointed to changes already underway. Aramesh’s uncle called the demonstration ‘the clearest expression, by the people of London Borough of Croydon that they will have nothing to do with the racist idea and activities of the Nazi.’ Thornton Heath was presented not as a tranquil suburbia invaded by the ‘inner city’, but a diverse community actively produced by its residents.

Bernard’s speech sat awkwardly alongside that of a member of the Croydon Race and Equality Council, which praised the hard work of the police to make it a ‘peaceful borough’ – signs that Thornton Heath’s meaning might be making a new return to its earlier tranquil suburbia, albeit multicultural in character. Still, its radical activists – contesting for control of the space, emphasising its internal fractures and connecting them to struggles elsewhere – had played an important role in pushing for, rather than simply drifting towards, the version of Thornton Heath which is celebrated and inhabited, today.

For optimal viewing please view the enlarged version of this StoryMap by following this link.


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